In 2005, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my coming-of-age novel Full Service. Set in small town Midwest in 1965, it’s the summer when everything changes (most of have such a time) for sixteen-year-old Paul Sutton. Fresh off the farm, and from a church-going family, he takes a job at a gas station where he fills tanks, checks oil, washes windshields and, most importantly, meets the public. Tourist girls, a kindly old gangster, con artists, a beautiful and mysterious woman in a blue Mercedes, wise men and fools—you get the idea– all stop at the gas station on their way somewhere or nowhere. Over the long summer Paul’s eyes are opened, and though he loses his religion (among other things) he gains the world.
With attentive editing by the FSG family, and a wonderful cover by Wendell Minor, Full Service launched to starred reviews (Kirkus called it “superb . . . pitch-perfect”). But then, well, my novel sat there. Hard cover sales were very disappointing. The paperback did better, but seven years later, still paddling gamely against the tide of fantasy and vampire fiction, Full Service seemed dead in the water. Destined, though close, never to pay off its advance.
So imagine my surprise to see a recent, dramatic spike in its sales– particularly in e-books. Of one million e-books available Full Service was suddenly below 60,000, and moving vigorously. I was beset by instant smugness: my little gem of a novel had finally been discovered. I used to tell my students that good writing will always find its audience, and here was proof.
Then, in a quick Amazon title search, up popped the new, hot-selling Full Service: My Life In Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Right next to my mine. While my Full Service had all five star reader reviews, the evil twin book had mainly one star reviews that included “absolute garbage,” “yuck,” “crap,” “simply awful,” “glad he’s not my friend,” and “worst book I’ve ever read” (24 of the latter). Yet there it was, this sweaty, trashy, Hollywood gigolo tell-all memoir cozied up alphabetically and algorithmically to my tidy, earnest novel of small town Midwest. But pimping for it, too. While I hold out a slim hope that my novel is finally catching on, it seems pretty clear that fast-fingered book buyers are clicking on it by mistake.
I’ve always believed the literary Gods to be sly but just, and now I know they have a sense of humor. Looking for sexcapades in Hollywood, my new readers instead find themselves at a gas station in Our Town. But here’s my fantasy: maybe they’ll be so surprised –and then by engaged by my characters– that they’ll finish my book and like it. Their eyes will be opened to the transformative power of “real writing”; they’ll realize that instead of a book-buying mistake, they made the right choice after all.
And I’ll finally pay off my advance.
(Originally published in the Huffington Post books section.)